Participatory rural appraisal is a citizen-centred method of development, which aims to empower communities by engaging local residents in the processes of identifying issues, implementing solutions, and monitoring evaluation.
Problems and Purpose
Participatory rural appraisal is a citizen-centred method of development. The process empowers locals by including them directly in the issue identification and evaluation process and, in many cases, in the final implementation and post-construction monitoring. The concept of PRA has evolved overtime since, as Narayanasamy notes, “as a development tool, it cannot just stop with committing the people in appraising and analysis their problems...rather, it must go beyond that and extend into analysis, planning and action.” Subsequently, PRA has become known as Participatory Learning and Action. In Pakistan, it is known as Participatory Reflection and Action, a term which is now used more widely.
Many development organizations face the ‘local knowledge problem’: the inability to understand or identify the full scope of local needs without communicating with residents. Participatory rural appraisal allows organizers to overcome this problem by including residents directly in the issue identification and evaluation process.
Origins and Development
In his seminal article on participatory rural appraisal, Robert Chambers traces the method’s evolution from various sources dating back to the 1960s. Among its antecedents are activist participatory research (circa 1968), agroecosystem analysis (circa 1978), applied anthropology (circa 1979), field research on farming systems (circa 1960), and rapid rural appraisal (circa late 1970s). Rapid rural appraisal is perhaps PRA’s closest relative but was deficient in the ‘participatory’ aspect until the word entered the field’s vocabulary in the mid-1980s. While RRA was developed in universities, applied in a top-down fashion and had as its objective “learning by outsiders”, PRA grew out of NGO field work, is carried out using various modes of participatory and has as its goal the “empowerment of local people.”
The transition from RRA to PRA and now to an even more participatory form can largely be seen in Narayanasamy’s observation that “as a development tool, [rural appraisal] cannot just stop with committing the people in appraising and analysis their problems...rather, it must go beyond that and extend into analysis, planning and action.” While RRA initially undervalued the knowledge held by locals, early forms of PRA undervalued their analytical capabilities. Recent adaptations of the model have thus become more participatory and empowering by entrusting locals with the assessment, analysis and, in some cases, the execution and post-construction management of rural development projects.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The selection of participants depends on the scope of the project and the decision of the organizers. There are numerous participatory tools and methodologies available to organizers which means that the types of participants and the stages of participation will vary widely. For example, both RRA and PRA have been known to use ‘key informants’ which involves “enquiring who are the experts and seeking them out, sometimes through participatory social mapping.” The use of the word ‘sometimes’ implies that organizers may either rely on their own resources to find experts (most common in RRA) or on the knowledge and resources of the locals (most common in PRA). The selection of participants and, in fact, the degree of empowerment granted to participants thus varies.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
According to Luigi Cavestro, PRA is primarily a process of problem solving wherein the local residents are given agency over the identification of the problem, the creation of a solution, and (in some cases), the final project implementation and post-construction monitoring. The eight steps generally followed in this process are:
- Rapport formation [between facilitator/organizer and locals]
- Understanding [the problem from the local’s perspective]
- Reframing [the problem in a way that makes its management possible]
- Solution searching [which, at this point, means narrowing down the numerous possible solutions to a general type of solution]
- Solution planning and development [which, after agreeing on a type of solution, involves further specification of the solution and agreements on the roles of various actors in its realization]
- Implementation [wherein the facilitator/organizer is to “help people with their motivation, focus and persistence”]
- Evaluation and adjustment [happens when the project is complete or an impasse has been reached. Adjustment can be extreme – abandoning the current approach – or a refinement of result – “creating new problems to fine-tun[e] a minor aspect”]
- Ending and consolidation [during which it is up to facilitator/organizer to ensure that residents have the ability to apply the newly acquired problem solving skills in the same or similar problems if they should emerge or re-emerge]
There are numerous tools and methods of participation employed in service of participatory rural appraisal, the following list of which has been adapted from Chamber’s original paper.
- Secondary sources such as files, reports, maps, aerial photographs, satellite imagery, articles and books
- Semi-structured interviews can entail having a mental or written checklist, but being open-ended and following upon the unexpected; they are increasingly using participatory visual as well as traditional verbal methods
- Key informants: inquiring who are the experts and seeking them out, sometimes through participatory social mapping; Groups of various kinds (casual; specialist/focus; deliberately structured; community/neighbourhood).
- Group interviews and activities are part of many of the methods
- Do-it-yourself: asking to be taught, being taught, and performing village tasks, such as transplanting, weeding, ploughing, field-levelling, mudding huts, drawing water, collecting wood, washing clothes, stitching, thatching, etc.
- They do it: villagers and village residents as investigators and researchers - women, poor people, school teachers, volunteers, students, farmers, village specialists. They do transects, observe, interview other villagers, analyse data, and present the results. This is a widespread element in PRA.
- Participatory analysis of secondary sources.
- Participatory mapping and modelling, in which local people use the ground, floor or paper to make social, demographic, health, natural resource, service and opportunity, or farm maps, or they construct three-dimensional models of their land transect walks by walking with or by local people through an area, observing, asking, listening, discussing, identifying, seeking problems, solutions and opportunities; and mapping and diagramming the zones, resources and findings
- Time lines as well as trend and change analysis
- Oral histories and ethno biographies
- Seasonal calendars
- Daily time use analysis indicating relative amounts of time, degrees of drudgery of activities, sometimes indicating seasonal variations;
- Livelihood analysis, of factors such as: stability, crises and coping, relative income, expenditure, credit and debt, multiple activities, often by month or season
- Participatory linkage diagramming
- Institutional or "Chapati" or Venn diagramming - identifying individuals and institutions important in and for a community, or within an organisation, and their relationships
- Well-being and wealth grouping and ranking often leading to the identification of key indicators of well-being.
- Analysis of difference, especially by gender, social group, wealth/poverty, occupation and age. Identifying differences between groups, including their problems and preferences [which] includes contrast comparisons
- Matrix scoring and ranking (SWOT)
- Estimates and quantification, often using local measures, judgements and materials
- Probes of questions which can lead directly to key issues
- Stories, portraits, and case studies such as a household history and profile, coping with a crisis, how a conflict was or was not resolved
- Team contracts and interactions
- Presentation and analysis - where maps, models, diagrams, and findings are presented by local people, or by outsiders, and checked, corrected and discussed;
- Sequences: the use of methods in sequence - for example participatory social mapping leading to the identification of key informants or analysts
- Participatory planning, budgeting, implementation and monitoring
- Group discussions and brainstorming, by local people alone, by focus groups of local people, by local people and outsiders together, or by outsiders alone
- Short standard schedules or protocols either for very short and quick questionnaires, or to record data (e.g., census information from social mapping) in a standard and commensurable manner
- Report writing
While the methods and tools of RRA overlap with those of PRA, the following usage trends have been observed by Chambers: “all the methods can be used in both RRA and PRA, but some are more emphasized in one than the other. RRA has tended to stress the use of secondary sources, verbal interaction especially through semi-structured interviewing, and observation: so these are sometimes described as ‘RRA methods’. For its part, a distinctive aspect of PRA has been the shared visual representations and analysis by local people, such as mapping or modeling on the ground or paper; estimating, scoring and ranking with seeds, stones, sticks or shapes; Venn diagramming; free listing and card sorting; linkage diagramming; and presentations for checking and validation: so these are often described as ‘PRA methods.’”
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
There are many examples of PRA’s practical application, mostly in underdeveloped nations. Included among the development projects which used PRA are: natural resource management, agriculture, poverty and social programs, and health and food security.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The success of each process of PRA largely depends on the tools and methods used as well as the organizers’ commitment to the ‘participatory’ aspect of the practice. Chambers, writing in 1994, notes that few academic analyses of PRA were available but that, from those at hand, most experiences were positive. As well, Chambers points to an analysis of an agricultural development project in Kenya which
“showed that performance had been worst in a showcase catchment where the approach had not been participatory [whereas t]he impact indicators were generally higher where catchment committees were freely elected, and where farmers had participated in planning and layout, and they were consistently best in the catchment where the program had begun with an interdepartmental PRA.”
Chambers concludes that the use of PRA in development is successful because it recognizes and utilizes “the richness not just of the knowledge of villagers, but of their creative and analytical capabilities.”
It should be noted that Chambers cautions against taking ‘participatory’ development projects at face value since “as PRA becomes "politically correct," so reports of PRA are likely to be inflated.” Old theories and practices of development which saw and treated locals as “incapable poor people” are, unfortunately, ingrained in the structure of international development work and thus the use of PRA should be carefully evaluated, especially regarding the agency locals had over the process.
 N. Narayanasamy, Participatory Rural Appraisal: Principles, Methods and Application (New Delhi, India: SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2009), 25.
 Robert Chambers, "The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal," World Development 22, no. 7 (July 1994): 954-957.
 Ibid., 957.
 Ibid., 958.
 Narayanasamy, Participatory Rural Appraisal, 25.
 Chambers, "The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal," 959.
 Università Degli Studi Di Padova Facoltà Di Agraria Dipartimento Territorio E Sistemi Agro-Forestali, P.R.A. - Participatory Rural Appraisal Concepts Methodologies and Techniques, by Luigi Cavestro, 28, https://liberiafti.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/cavestro_participatory-rural-appraisal-concepts-methodologies-techniques.pdf
 Università Degli Studi Di Padova Facoltà Di Agraria Dipartimento Territorio E Sistemi Agro-Forestali, P.R.A., 28.
 Chambers, "The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal," 959.
 Ibid., 962.
 Ibid., 963.
Chambers, Robert. Participatory Workshops. London; Sterling, VA: Earthscan. 2002.